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Formalised Church-State Dialogue in Ireland: A Critique of Concept

Kenneth Houston*



In February 2007, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern established a provision for formalised dialogue between the political institutions of the state (chiefly the Department of an Taoiseach) and religious bodies. This provision for dialogue was consciously modelled on Article 17.3 of the Functioning of the Lisbon Treaty. It was couched in terms of mutual respect and a need for a mature acceptance and recognition of contemporary socio-cultural pluralism. This official discourse reflected the ideals of deliberative democracy, the politics of recognition and identity, and the predominant norm of consensus-building. A conventional critique of the dialogue provision through the prism of deliberative democratic theory is presented, and the Irish instance is subsequently utilised as a point of departure for a reflective examination of the normative ideal. We argue that ideals of deliberation do not readily overcome embedded realities of power asymmetries and structural domination. As a result, public policy initiatives that seek to address the demands of various social movements for greater equality remain vulnerable to the interests and preferences of those religious bodies opposed to such reform. While recent revelations concerning the Catholic Church’s historical role within Ireland have gone some way to highlighting the need for a recalibration of the state’s relationship with corporate religion, the new dialogue provision entrenches a neo-corporate-style of interest representation. While this dialogue initiative has an expanded number of interlocutors, it is still substantially closed in practice to wider interested and affected parties. The deliberative modality is absent, replaced instead – as in EU praxis – with generally bilateral modes of state-religious engagement that lacks real deliberation and transparency. The Irish example exemplifies significant challenges to the realisation of deliberative democracy beyond the experimental level.


One of the obvious consequences of Ireland’s recent economic growth has been the explosion of cultural pluralism and a marked decline in regular church attendance. Figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) point to a much more heterogeneous social makeup, in terms of expanding religious and cultural categories, even from within the purview of recent decades. For example, to no small measure of media consciousness, the CSO announced that ‘Muslims’ now constituted the third largest religious group within the state (CSO, 2007). Quantitatively, Ireland’s religious demographic now stands in marked contrast to the near homogeneity of the state even a little over a decade ago. ‘Catholics’ now account for 87 per cent of the population, while a spectrum of other religious traditions aside from mainstream Christianity and Islam account for increasing numbers of citizens. Perhaps the most striking trend is the dramatic rise of ‘non-belief’ as an explicitly expressed preference in the statistical data, eclipsing all other minority faiths in numerical terms.

A critically important emergent question levelled at all advanced democracies more recently was the putative necessity for a sharp distinction between church and state, be this in the form of French laïcité or the US First Amendment (see Fox, 2007). In Habermasian terms we are, or at least should be, a ‘post secular’ society, one where religion has a legitimate role in the wider social context, where it is acknowledged as a conception of the good life, but where its role is strictly delimited by 1) scientific knowledge, 2) the secular state, and 3) the plurality of other conceptions of the good, whether religious or not (Habermas, 2006; see also Thomassen, 2010: 155). Most of the major thinkers in the democratic tradition, such as Habermas and Rawls (1996), have been prompted to account for the apparent ‘resurgence’ of ethnic or religiously motivated social action over the last few decades (see Westerlund et al, 1996; Kepel, 1995; Juergensmeyer, 1993). Mainstream political theory is nearly unanimous that religion can no longer be excluded from the public sphere (for example, Taylor, 2007, Rosenblum, 2000; Casanova, 1994). We are, in short, living in a period of increasing – or renewed – religious salience in social and political life, to the extent that the assumed tenet of strict church-state separation has been subject to challenge as never before. Even within the sociology of religion, what is known as the ‘secularisation thesis’, the idea that ascendant modernisation would correspond to declining religious observance, has also been subjected to sustained critique (Norris and Inglehart, 2004; Stark, 1999). Over the last few decades, and particularly since the events of 2001, religion has frequently been very near the top of the political agenda.

Nevertheless, corporate religion’s political role – as distinct from its place on the political agenda – is a much more specific object of enquiry. The scope of the following analysis is limited to political and sociological consideration of the role of churches within the political system. As such, it does not engage with theological debates over the appropriate role of the Christian churches (whether Catholic, Reformed or Orthodox) within political systems. This new (or renewed) salience of religion, and the concomitant need for democratic politics to show a more inclusive attitude, came as something of a surprise for most advocates of stricter church-state separation. Even in (mainly Western) Europe, until very recently, most states had either establishment, binding agreements such as concordats, or ‘special relationships’ with majority faith organisations and institutions. Only in Sweden has formal disestablishment actually occurred, and many other institutional arrangements, both de facto and de jure, are still in place across Europe. Animated discussion about the need to integrate religious voices “back” into politics appeared to secularists to overtake the reality, as religion was never sufficiently separated from politics to begin with. It is in this much contested – and contentious – context that we need to examine the concept of ‘structured’ church-state dialogue in Ireland.

A pertinent question at this early point is whether it is fair to subject a newly institutionalised state policy, vis-a-vis church-state relations, to critical examination using the core tenets of a normative academic theory as a parameter of analysis? The idea of deliberative democracy is not explicitly invoked by any of the policy entrepreneurs prominent in the establishment of formal church-state dialogue. However, some themes ubiquitous to late modern, advanced democratic societies, do emerge in the course of various public pronouncements, the official discourse, relating to church-state relations. These include the need to engender participation in democracy, greater inclusiveness, promote civic activism and social capital, and guarantee respect for diversity and mutual understanding. These themes certainly parallel the normative concerns inherent in deliberative and participatory forms of democracy. Deliberative democracy places greater emphasis on a collective endeavour to determine the common good, whether this be a procedural compromise or a substantive consensus (Bohman and Rehg, 1997). It shifts focus from political action focused on the actor as ‘chooser’ to the actor as chooser for others, from politics as a market to politics as a forum (Elster, 1997). It is about what Elstub refers to as the transformation of preferences through discussion in collective decision-making, and through the participation of all relevant actors (Elstub, 2006: 303).

Deliberative democracy is an explicit challenge to conceptions of democratic political processes considered too focused on self-interested competition, bargaining and the aggregation of preferences (see Bohman and Rehg, 1997: xii). Fishkin maintains that there are two central components of deliberative democracy: inclusion and thoughtfulness (Fishkin, 2009: 32). Thoughtfulness denotes the attitudinal disposition of intersubjective engagement, specifically that parties ‘sincerely weigh the merits of competing arguments in discussion together’ (Fishkin, 2009: 33; emphasis added). He outlines five central conditions necessary for the proper institutionalisation of deliberative democracy: availability of information, substantive balance of arguments, diversity of perspectives, conscientiousness in the treatment of arguments, and equal consideration of perspectives (Fishkin, 2009: 34).Yet none of the political statements around the establishment of a provision for church-state dialogue consciously draw from the core axioms of deliberative democracy.

The use of deliberative democracy as a normative yardstick hinges on the basis of two underlying – and ultimately antagonistic – analytical objectives. First, through a comparison of praxis with theory, we can calibrate how wide the gap is between what we might usefully refer to as the ideal of uninhibited exchange, which opens up the possibility of preference revision or convergence, or a change in ‘policy attitudes’ (Fishkin, 2009: 103) on the one hand and the reality of instituted state and non-state relations on the other. Conceivably, this first approach would allow proponents of deliberative democracy to point to deficiencies in praxis, to suggest refinements, in order to realise a truly deliberative mode of exchange, which can facilitate greater levels of inclusion, thoughtfulness and sincerity (Fishkin, 2009). While these will certainly emerge in the discussion below our purpose is not merely to offer a conventional critique of the provision for structured church-state dialogue from the standpoint of an ideal normative theory.

Our second analytical objective inverts the critical trajectory. It reflectively considers the challenge presented by an existing example of ‘dialogue’ between state and non-state actors for the concept and theory of deliberative democracy. It asks: what questions does the formalisation of church-state dialogue in Ireland pose for deliberative democracy? More than the mere imperfection of full realisation is at stake here. Precisely because the ‘structured’ dialogue was institutionalised independently of any obvious theoretical or ideological underpinnings (aside from its EU and French precedents) it demands that we consider the realisation of dialogue on its own terms. This means suspending the ideal, and starting from the premise that the dialogue serves a practical purpose, that it serves specific strategic objectives emanating from particular rationalities and their functional convergence. It has, as in its European Union forerunner, its own logic (see Houston 2009a). It demands that we consider the idea of ‘dialogue’ as a rationalisation of something else, but one where the language of compromise, inclusiveness, sincerity and mutual respect has become as much a reflection of utility as of truth.

‘Structured Dialogue’ and the Deliberative Democratic IdealToC

Our primary concern is to gain a fuller understanding of the abstract notion of ‘structured dialogue’. Specifically, we need to trace the contours of what this new practice entails and what it excludes. The following section aims to reconstruct the observable praxis of the dialogue provision from its conception in 2004 and its inception in 2007. The concept of ‘structured’ church-state dialogue in Ireland was first articulated in remarks made by then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, T.D., at the Vatican in November 2004 (DFA, 2004). In his speech, Minister Ahern expressly drew on the precedent set at European level through the inclusion of what was then Article I.52.3 of the Draft Constitution, which built on the Delors ‘Soul for Europe’ initiative of the mid-1990s. In December 2004, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern restated a commitment to an ‘open, transparent and regular dialogue’ between the state and religious and non-confessional bodies (Dáil Debates, 2004). When questioned in the Dáil about who would be invited to participate, the Taoiseach listed a number of organisations and bodies from the mainstream religious traditions and the Humanist Association of Ireland. He concluded that: ‘[w]e are happy to engage with other churches and faith communities that may wish to be involved’ (Dáil Debates, 2004). One query, from Labour’s Michael D Higgins, is relevant to our analysis insofar as he sought to determine ‘whether this initiative is a broad dialogue in the character of the Delors consideration of a Europe that is not simply materialist but spiritual as well [...] Are we to listen to, as it were, clerical organisational comments on State policy or are we talking about a joint initiative towards understanding the relationship between Christianity and Islam?’ (Dáil Debates, 2004). This question can be reduced to a well-known point of contention around the idea of deliberative democracy: the idea of deliberation and sincerity versus the role of power, strategy and interests (see, for example, Shapiro, 1999 and 2004; also Bacarro, 2006; for criticism of the sincerity norm see Markovits, 2006). In response, the Taoiseach outlined that the new dialogue provision will allow:

[A]ll issues from all groups that share mutual interests and concerns [...] This is an opportunity for enhanced dialogue on questions of the status of churches and their role in society generally on the one hand and on their views on social policy and other issues on the other (Dáil Debates, 2004).

In theory at least, therefore, the newly formalised structured dialogue is open to both deliberative and aggregative imperatives. Importantly from our perspective, Taoiseach Ahern stated that ‘I do not envisage that this process will displace the existing well-established lines of communication between churches [and the state]’ (Dáil Debates, 2004).

In February 2007, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern presided over the inauguration of structured dialogue at Dublin Castle. In his speech to that event several key themes emerged. The Taoiseach stressed that the establishment of church-state dialogue had been done ‘carefully and with deliberation’, insofar as government had sought reaction to the proposal from an unspecified number of religious bodies (Ahern 2007). He rejected the apparent notion that the dialogue provision amounted to a re-creation of ‘a special or privileged relationship’ with any denomination (Ahern, 2007). He was keen to draw attention to the many different religious and philosophical perspectives now present within the Irish polity and the need for government to be both cognisant of – and sensitive to – this new reality. Ahern also placed the new structured dialogue within the ambit of existing ‘participative democracy’ in Ireland. Finally, he pointed to the role of churches as a means of integration for those who have migrated to Ireland over recent years, a point he would reiterate in his April 2008 address at a reception for Churches and Faith Communities (Ahern, 2008).

In a Dáil debate following this inaugural event, Ahern further outlined the rationale of structured dialogue and the progress made to April, 2007 (Dáil Debates, 2007a). He alluded to the bi-lateral format of engagements following the inaugural event between his office and various dialogue partners. Furthermore, he informed the Dáil that the dialogue partners have been granted the initiative on agenda-setting. Specific issues of a functional nature were to be followed up with the relevant government departments. This was something specifically relevant to the engagement of the Roman Catholic Church with the Department of Education and Science regarding the school patronage system. With regard to transparency, Ahern stressed that he would not comment publicly on the issues raised, though he did not object to the dialogue partners releasing information should they so wish, and he expressed the hope that a wider exchange of views emanating from discussions would lead to further debate.

In November 2007, Taoiseach Ahern reported that he had met several other bodies bilaterally under the auspices of the dialogue provision, including the Humanists, the Religious Society of Friends and the Baha’i community (Dáil Debates, 2007b). Responding to questions on the possible expansion of the dialogue provision to include a greater number of religious associations, Taoiseach Ahern did hint at a possible future role for the Parliament. Emphasising the early stage in the development of the dialogue, Ahern also stressed the coordinating role that his department was currently playing but emphasised that more substantive questions were to be taken up with specific departments in view of their relevant functional responsibility. Remarking on his recent meeting with a single representative body of the Islamic faith in Ireland, the Taoiseach acknowledged the internal ideational, organisational and associational diversity of that faith (Dáil Debates, 2007b).

Following the change in leadership the new Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, continued the structured dialogue, meeting with Presbyterians and Methodists (Dáil Debates 2008) and Church of Ireland representatives, and reported on developments to the Dáil. He elaborated on his perception of the dialogue’s role, seeing it as an ‘exchange of views and perspectives that would be of value and assistance in policy development’, and re-affirmed the dialogue process as ‘an enduring channel of consultation and communication’ (Dáil Debates, 2009). Taoiseach Cowen also expressed the hope that a plenary event might take place with the dialogue partners, and re-emphasised the right of initiative on matters of discussion lay with the religious associations (Dáil Debates, 2008).

A Deliberative Democratic Critique of PraxisToC

In light of the above sketch of the dialogue praxis operating since 2007, we can summarise and synthesise the available information along several key thematic points, which bear directly on central elements of the deliberative democratic concept. Through this we can isolate a number of deficiencies in praxis in the light of deliberative democratic theory.

The dialogue is operated principally along a bilateral mode of engagement, which has significant repercussions for any possible deliberative mode of exchange. Important policy areas that affect many citizens, such as education provision, have been confined to a bilateral exchange between the religious patrons of education and the Taoiseach or the ministerial department concerned. There is no inclusion of other perspectives such as other religious groupings not engaged in school patronage, humanist bodies or – more importantly – parent groups and others with a significant stake in education provision. Existing and well- established lines of communication between dominant institutional religions and the state are not in any way subject to revision by the new dialogue provision. If a central axiom of deliberative democracy is the refinement, alteration or convergence of either procedural or substantive preferences relative to the public or common good through counter posing ideas, it is unlikely to occur through this mode of exchange. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that preferences will be revised while government concedes agenda-setting to the religious. Important areas of public concern are unlikely to be placed on the agenda if the non-state actors fear that the outcome of discussions may not conform with their interests. In this sense, the power of non-decision (Bachrach and Baratz, 1963, 1962; see also Kingdon, 1995) becomes just as important as the conventional power of executive (Dahl, 1959). In the absence of countervailing opinion, the religious are not confronted with challenges to their preferences. They are free to shape the terms of debate (Shapiro, 2003: 30ff). Conceivably, countervailing perspectives might emanate from the political/state actor. The state, through its public representatives (elected or bureaucratic), could assume the critical stances pertinent within any particular domain of policy. Yet there are good reasons to be sceptical in this regard, and this is something to which we will return below.

Given the central importance to deliberative democracy of facilitating the revision of preferences among actors, it is worth considering other reasons why preference-alteration might occur. Unlike game theorists, who assume fixed preferences, theorists of conflict are acutely aware that interests and goals may alter in the light of circumstances. Even in the absence of countervailing opinion, preferences among actors may well alter, but not in the direction envisaged by theorists of deliberative democracy. Sunstein, for example, has pointed out how increased communicative capacity between actors may actually increase antagonism (Sunstein, 2002, 2000; Shapiro, 2003: 25-27). Theorists of conflict have drawn similar conclusions regarding the role of communication in conflict resolution (Tidwell, 1998: Ch 5). Conflict theorists have also recognised the important dynamic of aspiration levels on actor preferences (Rubin et al, 1994). The preference aspirations of actors can alter through any of five means:

These can be readily applied to our particular object of analysis. Where churches see themselves as successful or having significant levels of influence in government, aspiration for preference realisation will increase, while any imperative to revise preferences in the light of a greater or common good is potentially dissipated. The structural and cultural context, where these may be favourably disposed to the expressed preferences, will also see an elevation of preferences. Where one church succeeds in actualising preferences, others will mobilise to pursue equality.

While ‘structured’ church-state dialogue does not lead to binding outcomes it is clear that input (what Taoiseach Brian Cowen referred to as ‘consultation’) into the pre-legislative stages of policy formulation is explicitly included as part of the raison d’être of the provision. It is at this point that the absence of immediate countervailing opinion becomes important. The risk, which is important from the perspective of deliberative democratic theory, is that religious influence over public policy may increase the possibility of domination. We might note two pertinent examples. In Ireland, despite government commitments to anti-discrimination on the basis of race, belief, status or sexual orientation, it is legal for the churches to exclude homosexuals or unmarried parents from prospective employment in religiously run organisations (such as schools or hospitals). The relevant legal provision lies within the state’s own Employment Equality Act of 1998, Section 37.1 (Irish Statute, 1998; see also Flynn, 2010). In this statute, churches have been granted a legal exemption from anti-discrimination law, through the right to ‘maintain the ethos of the institutions’ which they administer. Another recent example is the statement published by the Irish Bishops’ Conference, which outlined the Catholic hierarchy’s explicit opposition to a government initiative to legalise civil unions (Catholic Bishops, 2010). During the 2008 meeting with Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, the Presbyterian delegation also raised the issue of civil partnerships (Dáil Debates, 2008).

In addition, it is clear that the provision which seeks to be inclusive and reflective of contemporary Irish society is ultimately a forum suited to organised and institutionalised forms of faith. Taoiseach Ahern’s invitation to any religious organisation that wishes to participate automatically privileges organised or ‘corporate’ forms of faith. This bias towards ‘corporate’ religion cannot account for the growing numbers who are selective of their faith’s teachings, those who are indifferent to their religion or those who reject its authoritative forms, still less those who have consciously rejected their inherited faith. Increasingly, and in line with trends across Europe (see Special Eurobarometer, 2005; EVS, 2004), Irish citizens are no longer inclined to fully endorse the social attitudes of institutionalised faith. Measures of religiosity, specifically regular attendance at religious service, have decline sharply in Ireland in recent years.

Conventionally speaking, a golden opportunity to realise a more deliberative modality of politics in the Irish context has been missed, and the disparities noted above highlight the range of ways in which current praxis does not quite reflect the central principles of deliberative democratic theory. We could emphasise the necessary revisions and refinements required to adjust the practice of the provision in order to approximate to the deliberative model. On the positive side, the emerging outlines of the new church-state dialogue certainly appear to move definitively in the direction of greater openness and inclusion. The new ‘structured’ format ostensibly opens formal lines of communication with associations that are newly established or considerably smaller in organisational capacity than the mainstream churches. There is an expansion of interlocutors. The agenda is largely open and flexible, and the political authorities are happy to concede initiative to churches and religious associations about what should be placed on it. There is a greater amount of transparency, but it is not yet a transparent process. It is certainly less transparent than its European version, where the list of engagements between the European Commission and its various religious interlocutors, including lists of attendees, are displayed on the Commission’s website (BEPA, 2010). There is greater openness, but it is not yet open. Among the changes we might recommend, in view of the central impetus of deliberative democracy, would be a greater utility of multi-lateral or plenary exchange forums, where actual deliberation might conceivably take place, and where preferences and views are open to criticism, refinement and adjustment. Furthermore, bilateral exchanges on pre-legislative consultation based on path-dependent relationships fail to open up the policy arena to different perspectives, particularly with regard to such crucial policy areas as public service delivery. These are only some of the corrective revisions of praxis suggested by a deliberative democratic reading of the Irish initiative.

The Reflective Critique of Deliberative DemocracyToC

Less conventionally, an inversion of analysis prompts the reflective question: what challenge does the extant praxis in Ireland present for theory? Could we, or should we, expect the present relationship that prevails between church and state in Ireland with its notable biases to be any different given our historical conditions? Arguably, the public justification for the provision’s establishment drew from a predominant political zeitgeist, one that is doubtless not conscious of its theoretical and normative underpinnings. Nevertheless, the purpose of this analysis is to demonstrate that overcoming deeply embedded path-dependent structural and cultural biases is not only difficult. It may well prove impossible. This is the challenge for theorists of deliberative democracy. With the clear disparity in official discourse and actual practice, we might well consider whether the language of accommodation, multiculturalism and deliberative and participatory democracy has become a strategic instrument rather than a genuine objective. It is interesting that the imperative towards institutionalising the provision for structured church-state dialogue emanated primarily from the political class. In considering the provision’s initial praxis, it is clear that both mutual interests and wider mutual understanding through exchanges are the twin overt objectives of the dialogue provision. The crucial issue is determining the dividing line between interests and understanding.

The establishment of church-state dialogue independent of any overt theorising through deliberative democracy may indicate a more utilitarian set of imperatives. From this perspective, we could argue that current emerging praxis embeds and legitimises entrenched power relations between the state and the dominant corporate religious actors in Irish society. A cloak of rhetorical justification has been provided by the French and EU precedents to solidify already deeply-embedded church-state relations. Certainly, other religious and non-confessional perspectives have a newly established and formal line of communication with government and public institutions. Yet, the de facto privileged status of the main churches, particularly Roman Catholic institutions, is not exposed in any way to serious revision. Through the instrumentation of deliberative and participatory terminology, there is an appropriation of ideas of equality, freedom of religion and respect for cultural diversity and ‘mutual understanding’. The net practical result has been the mainstreaming of a neo-corporate-style of church-state engagement. The dominant actors retain their privileged position while other actors capable of mobilising are elevated from non-recognition to ‘recognised’ status. The process is ultimately vulnerable to charges of tokenism.

A key dynamic that requires emphasis at this point is the role of political and bureaucratic elites within the ostensibly deliberative process. The question that must be considered is the extent to which public representatives, as one half of the bilateral exchange with churches, are more inclined to be receptive to the perspective of one interlocutor – or one type of interlocutor – over another. To what extent do the ideological preferences of political-bureaucratic elites influence the reception that religious or non-religious associations have within the dialogue process? We should briefly consider two relevant examples from within the Irish context. Consider remarks made by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in the Dáil during questions following the inaugural event in 2007. In response to opposition questions regarding remarks which he made about ‘aggressive secularists’, Ahern made his position vis-a-vis church-state separation clear: ‘I do not like, agree with or support the secular State and believe religion has a predominant role to play’ (Dáil Debates, 2007; emphasis added). In his speech inaugurating the structured dialogue, the Taoiseach also remarked that ‘[a]s a society and a government, we treasure the spiritual, and we respect the prophetic role of spiritual leaders’ (Ahern, 2007). His predecessor in office, former Taoiseach John Bruton, speaking about religion within EU politics recently remarked that the EU ‘is open to be influenced by people of faith; that getting involved on a day to day basis with its work is the best way to promote Christian values [...]’ (Bruton, 2009; emphasis added). An obvious prioritisation has occurred within the rationalities of these political representatives: religion, and for both of these public representatives, religion in a particular form, is given ideological precedence over other manifestations of moral, ethical and spiritual belief. It is not intended to dwell here on the notion of separating private beliefs from public action, such as a Rawlsian ‘original position’ (Rawls, 1971: Ch.3). It is doubtless unrealistic to expect public representatives (whether political or bureaucratic) to set aside their personal convictions in the course of discharging their public duty (Spinner-Halev, 2000: 100). Instead, the point is to highlight the conceivable risks of domination through an absence of countervailing opinion within the dialogue process. Where religious and political representatives share similar outlooks on matters of public concern, and where no critical perspective is admitted into the exchange, there is the potential for some categories of citizens to be adversely affected through any emerging policies.

That the establishment of formal church-state dialogue has occurred largely without any resistance or controversy in the Irish context demonstrates just how well embedded these power relations are (Flyvbjerg, 1998a: 230). Although couched in terms of dialogue and mutual understanding, the formal church-state dialogue provision inaugurated in 2007 has not met even the broadest articulation of conditions for effective deliberation or participation beyond political and corporate elites: the opportunity for revision of preferences is largely absent. A move towards greater deliberation, even among the admittedly limited range of interlocutors that are in verifiable contact with the Irish Government, would go some way to mitigating the charge that ‘mutual understanding’ and value consensus are simply not an organising principle of structured dialogue. It is well within the capacity of the Irish government to pluralise these exchanges. The fact that few, if any, organisations have requested precisely this broader forum is itself indicative of the resilience of aggregative over deliberative politics. In fact, in the EU context, the mainstream Christian churches expressly sought a more ‘differentiated’ exchange with the European Commission in pre-legislative consultation (see Houston 2009b: Ch 3).

The dialogue provision is constructed around interests, not consensus; it is about aggregating preferences, not deliberating about them. In principle, we are informed, no organisation is excluded from engaging with the political institutions. In practice, however, the dialogue provision is highly asymmetrical insofar as it favours the organised, the mobilised and the motivated; those with resources, with clearly defined interests, associated agendas and coherent preferences (Baber and Bartlett, 2007: 16). This asymmetry gives these organisations not alone influence over policy at the earliest stages of formulation but also at the formulation of the policy agenda, where non-decision is just as relevant an exercise of power as decision. The conceptual distinction within broader deliberative democratic theory identified by Chambers (2009) is relevant here. Democratic deliberation is concerned with discrete deliberative initiatives, or ‘mini-publics’, akin to the ideas of Deliberative Polling and ‘Deliberation Day’ espoused by Fishkin (2009). Deliberative democracy, by contrast, is concerned with the role of civil society within the state, and we are confronted more acutely with questions of scale within the actual existing public sphere. Chambers usefully isolates the central conundrum around this division in deliberative democratic theory: how to transpose the obvious improvements gained through democratic deliberation within ‘mini-publics’ to the level of the polity, while avoiding the pitfalls prevalent as a result of the inevitable presence of rhetoric, interests and power (Chambers, 2009: 328ff).

One possible road out of this difficulty is the potential for voluntary associations, as reflective bodies of specific segments of public opinion, to engage in mutual exchange. In this way, the problems of scale are mitigated through the deliberation of smaller ‘representative’ groups in a mini-public setting. The dialogue provision initiated in Ireland could be viewed as offering this potentiality. Bader’s Associational Governance (Bader, 2007), grounded in Associational Democracy, holds out the indirect promise of genuinely deliberative exchanges among a relatively small number of interlocutors with the representative scale of wider societal diversity. However, Bader’s thesis places no emphasis on ‘deliberative’ associational exchanges and instead establishes the state as a neutral arena through which the aggregation of preferences can be achieved. Furthermore, he argues for significant state support for this ‘feasible utopia’ (Bader, 2007). Setting aside the wealth of other questions that this raises, there is a more profound problem: establishing a legitimate ‘representative’ connection between association elites and mass opinion. This connection is tenuous to say the least. In addition, as Perczynski (2001) pointed out, there are questions to be asked about the internal democratic and participatory structures within such associations, a point made much earlier by McConnell (1966) in relation to the risks of private power in American politics. There are significant asymmetries in the internal democratic structures of civil society bodies and associations, and ‘participation’ does not always equate to ‘deliberation’ (Hendricks, 2006). This is particularly true of the mainstream Christian churches.

The problems with Associational Governance can be illustrated by the following opening comment in a recent national media report relating the issue of the niqab (a form of Islamic dress) and the proposal to ban it in France. The Irish Times article begins with an important statement: ‘The Irish Council of Imams, a group which represents Muslims living in Ireland, has spoken out against attempts to ban the niqab elsewhere in Europe [...]’ (Taylor, 2010). At the outset of this article a significant concession has already been made to what is, in reality, a special interest. The Irish Council of Imams is representative of a particular stratum of professionalised religious administrators within a wider social category. The claim that it ‘represents’ Irish Muslims is problematic on two counts. First, there is the problematic assumption and elevation of a religious subjectivity as the primary marker of citizen identity and self-understanding. Second, there is the more problematic claim that this identity and its interests are reflected in the preferences of a particular mobilised, self-selected group of such religious professionals.

The difficulty with Bader’s Associational Governance model lies primarily in the fact that, as it gives primacy to associational forms of religion, there is no getting around what Fishkin refers to as the ‘self-selective’ nature of, in this instance, organised religion as participating interlocutors (Fishkin, 2009: 21). This highlights a central problem with the role of corporate religion: it is, ultimately, a manifestation of what E. E. Schattschneider referred to as the ‘mobilisation of bias’ (Schattschneider, 1960: 28). The necessary question, from the point of view of deliberative democratic theory, is what these organisations are ‘mobilised’ around, and what biases they embody. Bader’s proposal is problematic precisely because what is identified here is the unwarranted assumption of authority by non-state centres of power, which Bader sees as acceptable and even laudable. He concedes to the authoritative claims of religious associations on the basis that they are, in all likelihood, ‘decent’. He does not contest the inevitability of a confessionalised public space and the potential for non-state forms of domination to result from this.

The Citizens-Subject and the Risks of DominationToC

An additional critical dimension becomes pertinent at this point, and it relates to the particular context of the Irish example, specifically the role of religion in the formation of the citizen-subject. This oblique perspective draws on the insights of Michel Foucault’s analysis of power. Foucault’s thought, as is well known, is frequently juxtaposed to that of a key theorist of deliberative democracy, Jurgen Habermas (Owen and Ashendon, 1999; Flyvbjerg 1998b; Kelly et al, 1994; Honneth 1992). Foucault did not theorise against deliberative democracy explicitly but his work does provide a significant critique of the theoretical foundations of its communicative bases. In short, Foucault’s examination of more subtle methods of exercising power, such as expert knowledges and embedded administrative rationalities, prompts greater caution about the rush towards the state-supported confessional categorisation of a polity. With confessionalisation comes the correlative tendency to impute beliefs and life stances to citizens on the basis of their inherited religious affiliation, and to construct state policy accordingly. In effect, it embodies a tendency to equate quantitative ‘belief’ (those who affiliate themselves with a particular religious tradition) with levels of qualitative adherence (that is, the extent to which citizens actually believe in their faith – or not). It compels us, in other words, to be alive to the danger of implicitly assuming confessional affiliation and membership with strong religious beliefs, and question the capacity of corporate religion to legitimately communicate these to public authorities. The danger lies not so much with the ascription by itself but with the assumption that the preferences of mass publics are reflected in the aggregation of religious association preferences. Specifically, it prompts more critical reflection on the efficacy of permitting corporate forms of these religious identities to claim authority over individual citizens through the accommodation of – and material support for – their preferences concerning public policy delivery.

The sympathy of political elites for the role of institutional religious involvement has arguably created a blind spot concerning the negative consequences of conceding inordinately to the preferences of such non-state actors. The danger is that, while the power of the state will be curbed, it will be done at the risk of conceding it to non-state actors with even less accountability (McConnell, 1966). Iris Marion Young’s advocacy of ‘difference’ as a vital resource within the framework of deliberative democracy (Young, 1997) similarly concedes to distinctions that are much less stable and essential. Young is correct that a more agonistic intergroup exchange among variegated perspectives can aid democratic deliberation, particularly with the need to rebalance oppressive practices targeting certain groups. Yet the risk of intra-group domination is just as real (for example, see Gupta, 2010; Patel, 2008; Okin, 1999). Young acknowledges that some groups have been ‘overly separatist, essentialist, and inward looking in their promotion of group specificity and its political claims’ (Young, 1997: 384). She is correct to refute the claim that such groups are responsible for a ‘crisis of democracy’ (Young, 1997: 385). However, there are vested interests in the maintenance of those differences, which can become domains of non-state power. It is this risk of domination, readily identifiable in the recent controversy over the role of senior Irish clerics in the handling of child abuse by priests, which deliberative democracy needs to avoid inadvertently supporting.

The frequent invocation of Article 44 of Bunreacht na hÉireann by those public representatives supporting the dialogue has invariably been connected to the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Yet, it is the right of citizens not to believe, not to conform, the right to be indifferent to faith and religion, which becomes vulnerable through the elevation of corporate forms of religion into privileged pre-legislative policy consultation and increased involvement in public service delivery. The freedom of thought, conscience and belief, articulated in the Constitution (Article 44.2.1), the European Convention, the Universal Declaration and the more recent European Charter of Fundamental Rights, guarantees each individual citizen the freedom to believe, to believe selectively, to dissent, to conform or not conform, to be conservative, indifferent and critical or even antithetical in matters of faith. Consequentially, in its obligation to vindicate those rights, the democratic state must respect the right of all citizens to their beliefs, even when they deviate from the ‘traditional’ interpretations of what Boyer called ‘religious professionals’ (Boyer, 2001).

What the state has not been granted, however, is an explicit remit to overtly and materially support particular organised religions to the detriment of other worldviews and life stances. The state can engage in dialogue with religious associations, as members of civil society. But the term ‘dialogue’ suggests a bi-directional and inter-subjective process. It means that, while public institutions and representatives can be receptive to the preferences of religious organisations, the former are also permitted – indeed obligated – to challenge religious organisations to reflect on the qualifications which they in turn place on the institutionalisation of wider freedoms for other social movements. While we can laud any move towards greater levels of discussion and participation, we should also be much more cautious about the claims of politicians and interest groups to be motivated by such ambiguous imperatives as ‘the common good’, ‘mutual understanding’ or policy consensus. Schumpeter long ago questioned an objective notion of the common good and pointed to how it can itself be a source and instrument of domination (Schumpeter, [1943] 2010: 225ff). This reading of the dialogue provision prompts us to reconsider the role of organised religion in politics and public life. Are they deliberating, or are they pursuing interests? Neither is necessarily invalid, but they are not the same.

The citizen is, ultimately, a multi-faceted construct, and education is the formative point in the process of construction. The intrinsic danger here is that, through the amalgamation of church and state objectives in education provision, individual human subjectivity and self-understanding is cast in conformity with the ideologies and preferences of those who have acquired, or are allowed to acquire, the power to define and shape that subjectivity. Religious organisations mobilised around the universal missionary imperative, frequently embodying or espousing uncompromising conceptualisations of human perfection and specific interpretations and rationalisations of the common good are de facto privileged within this ‘structured’ dialogue. Their amenability to compromise and preference refinement is open to doubt (see Shapiro, 2003: 25ff). The elevation of a confessional subjectivity, the facilitation of a corporate religious claim over the self-understanding of citizens, is ultimately incompatible with freedom of conscience. It is only now that what was once taken for granted has been brought into question (see for example O’Toole, 2009), and this has not occurred through deliberation but as a result of scandal and by uncovering abuses of power. The practical implications of this are obvious from Taoiseach Ahern’s remarks in the November 2007 debate, where he drew attention to the importance of education for the various interlocutors (Dáil Debates, 2007). Because education deals with this formative aspect of human subjectivity, it is very likely to remain the key battleground over the role of religion in politics in Ireland for the foreseeable future.

The state is obliged to respect religious freedom, but not necessarily obligated materially to support particular organisations in the formulation and delivery of public policy, particularly with regard to the formative education of its citizens. Its historical role in providing just this facility has recently come into question (UN, 2005: para. 18; Educate Together, 2005). The fact that this church-state alignment in the delivery of public services has served the interests of both church and state over such a long time frame means that dislodging it in favour of a more egalitarian system will be difficult. What also emerged from the November 2007 debate was the intersection of two imperatives that resulted in a certain tension between the interests of the state to facilitate greater diversity and that of the dominant denominations in the provision of education. The willingness of the Catholic Church to accommodate change must, according to Taoiseach Ahern, also ‘accommodate their ethos’ (Dáil Debates, 2007). He also hinted that the mainstream churches, who are patrons of the vast majority of schools, are not amenable to a revision of the power of employment, and he remarked that churches tended to ‘bind quite tightly on this matter’ (Dáil Debates, 2007).


The Irish government is not obliged to follow the principles of deliberative democracy in conducting relations between national political institutions and civil society actors such as churches. However, the public justification of such dialogue by political elites through an official discourse that borrows heavily from the theoretical ideal amply demonstrates the appropriation of deliberative democracy as a normative framework. Through the conventional and inverted critique of both the dialogue provision and deliberative democracy our examination sought to evaluate the current instance of praxis in the Irish context, and through this important questions about deliberative democratic theory emerge.

First and foremost, it is important to point out the objective inadequacy in the Irish instance of the current system of checks and balances against the problematic influence of corporate religious interests in the policy arena. Given the bilateral nature of exchanges, the limited transparency of the process and the dynamic of political sympathy with at least some religious perspectives, the field of exchange requires greater openness than is presently the case. For example, there is no reason why discussions concerning the reform of education should not now be expanded beyond the limited number of interlocutors, principally the existing patrons, to include a wider range of affected parties. Second, as the Irish state, primarily through the impetus of European norms, moves towards a liberalisation of personal freedoms and continued expansive revisions of concepts of equality, the implementation of the dialogue provision must be made with greater awareness of the qualifications that some religious bodies place on evolving ideas of freedom. In this sense, we might well consider whether religious actors will revise or adjust their preferences in the face of calls for same sex unions with full parental rights, or the provision of abortion in religiously-run hospitals should the opinion of the electorate move to legalise this. How willingly will religious actors accept some adjustments to public policy that are not in line with their particular interpretations of the common good? Are they, in short, sincerely open to deliberation?

This brings us to the critical evaluation of ‘deliberation’ as a theoretical modality when measured against an existing manifestation of dialogue. In view of the fact that the structured dialogue provision in Ireland emanated independently of any conscious implementation of deliberative democracy, more circumspection should be exercised about the notion that policy entrepreneurs and civil society interests will invariably and ‘sincerely’ pursue mutual understanding and policy consensus – even when they say they do. The extant configuration of Ireland’s church-state dialogue provision challenges the optimism of thoughtfulness and sincerity in the pursuit of broad socio-political consensus. The dialogue’s primary effect was to copper-fasten and entrench existing neo-corporate-style relationships between dominant churches and the state, while symbolically (and perhaps tokenistically) expanding the number of dialogue partners in the light of new social realities. This is doubtless a consequence of the predominance of some religious bodies in service delivery, but the imperatives for reform, recognised by the political elites in the legislature, did not prompt the inclusion of more voices in the process of shaping such reform. The policy consensus that emerges from this heavily bilateralised and asymmetrical forum is only sustainable as long as the number of dialogue partners with respect to key policy areas is limited, and as long as aspiration levels among the non-dominant religious and non-confessional associations remains modest. From the perspective of deliberative democracy, a significant opportunity has been missed to institute a markedly more ‘deliberative’ process between the newly-widened range of ethical perspectives in contemporary Ireland. The fact that all this has happened can be read in one of two ways: either the ideal has not been achieved, or – as Flyvbjerg argues – theorists are not sufficiently sensitive to the exercise of power (Flyvbjerg, 2001).

The ‘deliberative’ aspect to theories of deliberative democracy remains vulnerable to criticisms levelled against it by considerations of power. This is not new. Theorists of deliberative democracy are well aware of the problem of power in the realisation of deliberative democracy. Yet the ‘deliberative’ modality is consistently assumed in the theorisation while never consistently materialising in even proximate realisation beyond ‘mini-publics’. The question for theorists is whether this recurring theoretical assumption – and recurring practical disappointment – is sustainable. Once again, as the Irish church-state dialogue example demonstrates, deliberation has fallen short into bilateralism; inclusion has been limited by practicalities, resources and the asymmetries of mobilising capacity; thoughtfulness and sincerity have not emerged from established preferences, strategy and significant imbalances in recognition status.

The power of executive remains with the political institutions, but the power of agenda-setting for the dialogue process has been largely conceded to the religious organisations. It is, for that reason, hardly surprising that opposition politicians should draw attention to the ‘one-way’ traffic in church-state dialogue thus far. Three complicating dynamics continue to inhibit the full potential of structured dialogue as an instance of public deliberation: the precedence of established privileges and modes of church-state engagement; fluctuating aspiration levels through perceived levels of influence and inter-actor competition; and the receptivity of sympathetic politicians to specific religions or religious institutions. The dominant roles of the main Irish churches will be difficult to dislodge. Even the conciliatory tones from the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, regarding the patronage of schools, have evidently been difficult to transform into practical policy reform, not least because they are not shared widely by the remainder of the Irish Catholic hierarchy.

Religious organisations have a right, as associations, to engage in political debate on the basis that they are a legitimate interest group in society. But because the deliberative telos and full inclusiveness demanded by deliberative democratic theory are manifestly absent in large part from the currently constituted ‘structured’ church-state dialogue, we are justified in concluding that this dialogue is about interests, about power, and about the maintenance of the status quo. Where the status quo is unsustainable, such as in education provision and patronage, reform will meet the preferences of those privileged organisations with direct access to the process of policy formulation, and it will embody the best outcome for those interests in the face of inevitable change.

Power has trumped deliberative reason in the Irish instance (Flyvbjerg, 1998a). This fact is not necessarily fatal to ongoing formulations of deliberative democracy – but it may well prove to be a difficult obstacle to surmount when applying theory to real – as distinct from experimental – politics. The fact that political entrepreneurs willingly appropriated public justification from the deliberative zeitgeist but were unwilling to fully implement its complete logic indicates that the will to truth has been overridden by the will to power. The current configuration is not merely ‘distorted’ from an ideal; it is the result of power. This is not to say that rationality and consensus are never possible but we must not assume that it is inevitable. Assuming sincerity and thoughtfulness where little (or none) exists may do more harm than good. In fact, we must assume that power, illusion, marginalisation, exclusion, misrepresentation, oppression and domination are all part of normal politics. Our attention can be fruitfully redirected from the absence of an ideal to the presence of rationalities much less amenable to deliberation. Deliberative democracy is aware of the presence of power in human relations: the mitigation of power’s negative effects is its raison d’être. Yet its methods of mitigating power are questionable on grounds of effectiveness. The rationalities really at work in the church-state dialogue setting are distinct if temporarily compatible. Through a Foucauldian ‘governmentality’ reading, the state is pursuing legitimacy and the formation of productive and loyal citizens. The churches are concerned with their pastoral mission, the constitution and shaping of believing citizens, and the imperatives both to minister to the faithful and proclaim the universal validity of its revealed truths. Habermasian inter-subjective learning is absent from the newly-instituted church-state dialogue provision.


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